“Photography is truth. Cinema is truth 24 times a second.”
Jean-Luc Godard said that. But is it really true? Was it ever?
There was a time, I think, when the connection between photography and truth was much less tenuous. A film negative, or a glass plate, or a daguerreotype has a direct connection to the scene in front of the lens that resists attempts to distort what the lens saw. A physical object, a latent image, is created by the rays of light that through a lens and strike a piece of film. Sure, in the darkroom there is burning and dodging to enhance or obscure areas of the image; you can defuse the image with a bit of nylon stocking to soften a subject’s skin or crop out something you’d rather wasn’t seen. But it is difficult to remove any trace of something from a chemical photograph. It is even harder to make a composite image from several different source images. It can be done, but it takes a tremendous amount of skill, and even then, the disturbance of the grain textures usually gives it away. So you can be pretty certain that an image like the one above of the Stork Club, is a reasonably faithful representation of the scene that existed in front of the lens when Eisenstaedt exposed the film.
Digital photography has changed that.
The other night, I went out to shoot a moonrise over the skyline of the city across the river. I got the time wrong. When I got there, the moon was already well up, and the shot had passed. So, not to go home empty-handed, I shot the skyline anyway, then shot the moon. When I got home, it took me about five minutes in Photoshop to produce the composite you see above.
The picture is nice…but it never happened.
Sure, something like that happened, but an hour earlier than I was there. And I have no idea where the moon really rose, I just put where I thought it looked nice.
Today, there is no more certainty that what you see in an image is true than there is that what you see in print is true. Most of the images we see now originate in digital cameras, where, unlike a film image, there is no physical object created by the rays of light passing through the lens, just data stored in a digital file for conversion, sometime later, by some software, to a viewable image. Essentially, the photo you take on a digital camera is a description of the scene that was in front of the lens. That’s a fundamental difference in the nature of photography. Digital photographs are almost trivially easy to manipulate to suit the photographer’s taste—or message.
That can be wonderful, as it is in Erik Johansson’s surreal composite images. But it can also allow deceptively distorted images in advertising and fashion magazines, where it’s not so clear where the line between fantasy and reality lies. To believe a photograph, you need to believe that the photographer is telling the truth.
But wait—hasn’t that always been the case? Photographers frame most of the world out when they choose what’s in the frame of an image; they unavoidably show the viewer only part of the scene. That selection has the power to fairly represent what they depict, or to manipulate the event.
When I present an image, I want to say something—to evoke some emotion. The truth in a photograph is not in the objective reality of the image, it’s not in some idea of pure representation; that doesn’t really exist, and never has. Truth, in my images, resides in my intent as a photographer, and in the intent of the people who use those photographs. And so it is for every image you see.
Photography is a language, and like all language, it can be truthful or deceitful.